Much ado about filtering
- By Eric Kulisch
- Jan 07, 2001
"Are you against pornography?"
In tiny Hudsonville, in western Michigan near Traverse City, a zone
some call the state's Bible Belt, petitioners went door-to-door last year
asking just that. Because if you are against pornography, the conservatives
reasoned, you surely can't stand for what is available at the local public
library: unfiltered Internet access.
At the library, kids could go online and have a free window to sex sites
and other adult material — completely inappropriate, they said.
Meanwhile, civil rights proponents and national library officials joined
the fray, countering that libraries limiting Internet content with filters
amounts to censorship.
Caught in the middle was Library Director Melissa Huisman and her library's
seven Internet computers. Ironically, as other cities were struggling to
get connected, Huisman saw no solution other than to pull the plug.
Libraries and schools all over the country have been struggling with
Hudsonville's dilemma since Internet access became status quo in public
institutions. And the pressure isn't about to let up. Powerful Arizona Sen.
John McCain (R) has thrown his weight behind a bill that would keep federal
dollars from schools with libraries that don't filter.
And more laws are cropping up at the state and local levels, all with
the effect of making public Internet access a tricky amenity indeed.
The market has stepped up to the challenge, with dozens of products
that filter content in various ways. It's up to school and library officials
to figure out which route to take.
At least 20 states — including Arizona, Wisconsin and Utah — have considered
mandatory filtering requirements for schools and libraries, even though
80 percent of schools, by most estimates, already use the technology. The
American Library Association figures that 20 percent of the nation's 8,967
public library systems use some form of filtering.
McCain's bill, the Children's Internet Protection Act, would require
all public schools and libraries to install filtering technology. Schools
and libraries that fail to comply would lose federal E-Rate subsidies for
Internet connectivity and other technology funds.
The federal legislation would leave it up to local school districts
or library boards to determine the type of filter to use. However, it would
instruct schools to monitor the online activities of minors.
Michigan has a law requiring that public libraries block minors' access
to material that is "obscene, sexually explicit or harmful to minors" as
defined by state law. And the state is considering a bill that would require
schools to filter. With that in mind, the state's Department of Management
and Budget would offer a statewide filtering option for free.
Throughout the last year, it has seemed to some that Michigan has been
ground zero for the filtering debate. Beyond Hudsonville, those for and
against the Internet guards squared off in neighboring communities, including
Georgetown Charter Township and the city of Holland.
Interestingly, each of the three municipalities went a different direction
on the issue.
In Hudsonville, the library director didn't permanently pull the plug
on the Internet. Three months after the fracas, when emotions had cooled
and the city had time to study its options, Net access returned — with filters.
The library board knew its patrons well enough to know that a bare-bones
filtering system would be unacceptable. So it selected LibraryGuardian,
a flexible system that restricts access based on a user's profile. The
library created five levels — ranging from unrestricted access to a "safe
harbor" level, in which the library allows only specific sites to be accessed.
Each level has varying subcategories — such as harmful to minors, hate,
lifestyle, even something called "worthless."
With a smart card and a password, patrons can surf the Internet at each
terminal. The system also comes with a time-management feature.
The smart card combines a computer chip and a photo to verify the user.
It resets the browser when you pull the card out, so nothing objectionable
can be left for the next person to see. The card can be customized for individual
preferences and used as an in-house debit card to pay fines or printing
costs. And free upgrades with new sites happen automatically.
"You're going to have to go to one of these smart systems because librarians
aren't going to be satisfied with some kind of cyber patrol thing that doesn't
work," Huisman said.
However, the move nearly sank the library. "My book budget is $17,000.
To shell out $20,000 [and 10 percent annual maintenance fees] almost killed
us," Huisman said. "This year I've cut hours, I've cut staff and I've cut
my book budget. We can't take these kinds of hits."
Gary Glen, president of the Michigan branch of the American Family Association,
the conservative group that led the charge against open Internet access,
said a standard filter that blocks access to all users would cost between
$1,000 and $3,000, depending on the number of terminals. "They are so committed
to allowing access to hard-core pornography that they will spend outrageous
sums of money to guarantee that so-called right," he said of the library's
more liberal system.
So far, patrons seem happy with LibraryGuardian, Huisman said. "The
thing we like about it most is that we're not having to make value judgments
for other people's kids."
Most parents choose the least restricted level allowed for children,
Huisman said. Children automatically have two subcategories turned off — extreme and obscene, and sex — even if their parents want them to have
access. To visit those levels, minors must sit with their parents and use
their smart card.
In Georgetown Charter Township, an unincorporated area of Ottawa County,
the same county that Hudsonville is in, officials were never hesitant to
use filters in the library to bar access to obscene or sexual material.
Almost two years ago, the township board voted to install filters on all
five of its public access Internet terminals.
The basic filter package came with firewall software supplied by WatchGuard
Technologies Inc., Library Director Sheryl VanderWagen said. The system
cost about $5,500. Annual maintenance fees, which cover database updates,
updates to software and technical support, run near $1,000.
But that system was installed six months before the new Michigan law,
which requires libraries to provide at least one completely unrestricted
terminal for adults and minors accompanied by a parent, took effect. In
response, the township instituted a $100-per-hour fee for patrons wishing
unfettered Internet surfing. When township attorneys said the fee could
be found unconstitutional and unreasonable, the city leaders decided to
rescind the fee policy but to keep all the terminals filtered.
The township hasn't been challenged — yet. The American Civil Liberties
Union was waiting to see how the McCain amendment fared in Congress before
deciding whether to sue the township, the ACLU's Chris Hansen said. "If
I were them, I'd be feeling legally vulnerable.... It not only is acting
unconstitutionally but is violating state law."
If the ACLU goes forward, it will rely on a 1998 federal district court
decision that struck down similar content restrictions.
In Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of Loudoun County, the court
ruled that the Virginia county's policy requiring site- blocking filters
on all library computers violated free speech rights. The judge found the
library board could have taken intermediate steps such as installing monitor
screens to prevent second-hand exposure to graphic images, recessing or
arranging terminals so that only the user can observe the screen and setting
aside some filtered terminals for minors.
In the meantime, VanderWagen said the filters are working smoothly.
"We haven't had any problems with it," she said. "It's managed very easily.
If I do get a report that someone can't [access] something, it's just a
matter of going to my own computer and authorizing it" with a few keystrokes.
The library only blocks all users from sites that deal with illegal
activities or pornography.
In Holland, another Ottawa County town, the American Family Association
led a ballot initiative to cut funding to the local library until it installed
filters on six of its seven terminals. That stirred a hornet's nest among
residents and in the local papers.
The library board and some city officials adamantly opposed filters.
The issue was complicated by the fact that Holland shares the Herrick District
Library with three other jurisdictions. Even some of the filtering supporters
did not want to impose their will on their neighbors.
And if the city were forced to do without Holland's $1.2 million share
of the library's $4 million operating budget, the library would default
on a construction loan.
The initiative failed. But with Michigan's state mandate, filters are
Until filters are purchased, the library will require minors to get
a signed permission slip from a parent or guardian to access the Internet.
The library also has placed warning signs about inappropriate use in the
area, and full-time staff members are stationed nearby to keep an eye on
Library spokesman Gary Pullano said the library is looking into a deal
in which 88 libraries in a regional cooperative could tap into filtering
software on a shared server to cut projected filtering costs, which run
between $15,000 and $25,000.
To make sure they're doing the right thing with such an inflammatory
issue, community officials often do comprehensive evaluations before making
In Fairfax County, Va., which has one of the largest school systems
in the nation, administrators went through an extensive review process
before settling on I-Gear software from Symantec Corp. In the fall of 1997,
the school board enlisted the help of the county's Department of Information
Technology to examine available technologies. A committee was formed to
draft an Internet filtering policy and identify funding for initial implementation
of the plan.
Before drafting a policy, the committee solicited input from community
stakeholders, including parents and teachers. Staff also interviewed people
from 10 other school systems in the state to understand their approaches
And the committee conducted a survey of student violations of acceptable
Internet use policies during that school year and looked at suspension reports
for illegal computer use during the previous two years.
In addition to product evaluations, a high school was tapped to test
a filter system for a six-week pilot period.
But libraries in Fairfax County do not filter. Librarians rely on a
well-posted Internet use policy, sign-up sheets and over-the-shoulder monitoring
of the open carousels.
"It's not much of a problem," said Martha Ray, Chantilly Regional
Library director. "On a rare occasion, someone leaves on a [pornography]
site as a prank, and we shut off the monitor."